This May Sound Like A Big Contradiction, But…

By: Ashley B. (Sports Chat Fanatic Writer)

As a University of North Carolina fan, it is often difficult for me to acknowledge anything positive about Duke University, especially their basketball program. However, over the course of the years, I have come to learn about and respect head coach Mike Krzyzewski for the way he can lead his team through both the good times and bad. My entire life my family has always instilled in me to be a leader, not a follower. “If you keep up with the crowd, you only get as far as the crowd,” my grandmother would always tell me. I started to fall in love with basketball (see earlier blog post) around the same time my grandmother felt the need to remind me more than usual about being a leader (something about being in high school and being faced with difficult choices). I constantly observed Coach K’s body language and mannerisms both on the court and during halftime and post-game interviews and decided that I needed to know more about this charismatic man. That was almost seven years ago, and today my admiration is only more intense.


Mike Krzyzewski [pronounced Sha-shef-ski] is one of the most notable athletic leaders in both professional and collegiate sports. After resigning from military commission in 1974, he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Bob Knight at Indiana University. Knight was Krzyzewski’s head basketball coach at West Point and is credited with helping to mold the strong leader we see on the court today.  Next, he took his first head coaching job at his alma mater in 1975 where he won Coach of the Year honors from two separate organizations.  In 1980 Krzyzewski landed the position he still holds today as the head men’s basketball coach at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In 2005 he was named head coach of the US National Men’s basketball team and won his third Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing games. The national team has a record of 35-1 under Coach Krzyzewski and is looking forward to the summer games this year. As a sport management major, it is easy for me to say that Mike Krzyzewski is the leader I aspire to be most like for his winning record and ability to transform young men from high school standouts to professional basketball players. However, there are many layers to the man known simply as “Coach K” that make him my leadership idol.


“I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach…

I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.”


All of Coach K’s teams are centered on five fundamental components: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring, and pride. “I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable,” he has said. These qualities are not only important to an athletic team, but in the business world as well. Genuinely caring about your mission and taking pride in completing it with integrity is something I believe every human being should be focused on during the course of their career. Trusting your team to have your back and to be honest with you at all times is vital to success. Even if a coworker or teammate does not agree with something you have said or done, having the confidence in each other to know that the lines of communication are always open will lead to a solution that perhaps neither of you would have seen otherwise. Collective responsibility is crucial to any business in order to avoid playing the blame game if a plan does not go accordingly. Putting others down, in business or in basketball, does not help any situation improve. It is best to acknowledge any wrongdoings on your own part and focus on ways to avoid them and improve for your next project or game. I admire Coach Krzyzewski’s consistency in the way he leads his teams both on and off the court.


Mike Krzyzewski has said that occasionally during practices he will let his assistant coaches take the reins so that players have the opportunity to learn from all perspectives of his staff. Even though the assistants may be repeating the message he was trying to convey, listening to a different voice helps players grasp the concept better, which leads to team improvement. Krzyzewski sees everyone he comes in contact with as an individual and looks to bring out the best in them so that they may bring out the best in the other people around them.  I hope to emulate this practice in my future career. My goal is to be an athletic director at the collegiate level, so where Coach Krzyzewski is today and where I hope to be in the next ten years are not that far apart. During my time as an intern at a junior college I witnessed the importance of trusting your colleagues and allowing everyone equal time to shine. Believing that you are the only person on your team who knows best and not allowing others to contribute is detrimental to the well being of that team. Regardless of the national attention he received for becoming just the fifth coach in college basketball history to win 800 games at one university, Coach Krzyzewski was fast to share the credit with everyone on his staff. When Coach K set the record with 900 wins at Madison Square Garden, countless former players were there to celebrate with him. I hope to one day be even remotely successful in comparison to Coach K, just so that I may have the opportunity to thank all of the people who helped me get there the same way that he has.


Playing sports provides a different opportunity for every participant. Whether the athlete sees being involved as a way to avoid doing their homework for a few hours or as something more serious such as a way to escape from a troubled home life, understanding their motives is the most important step to successfully guiding them towards their goals. I am an assistant cheerleading coach for a team of seven to ten year old females. In my first year I had to quickly realize what Krzyzewski has known for years: that being firm and fair may work in getting some members of the team to focus and work harder, but other members of the team may misinterpret your message and feel put down by it. Evolving as a leader and altering your style when the situation requires it is something I learned to master over the course of my coaching career. Another amazing leadership quality I see in Coach K (and one that I have embedded in my own style) is his balance between acting as a coach and as a friend, and his ability to recognize when his team needs a particular side to shine through. Taking the time to learn about the core values of a person and always being emotionally, not just physically, available for communication is what I believe the foundation of Duke’s success to be.


Choosing a career in coaching is choosing a lifetime dedicated to helping people reach their potential while teaching them the value of teamwork and responsibility. On top of coaching both collegiate and world-championship teams, Krzyzewski hosts a conference on leadership for business professionals, holds camps for basketball enthusiasts of all ages, and oversees the Emily Krzyzewski Family LIFE Center. “The Emily K Center,” as it is known to locals in Durham, North Carolina, is an after-school program whose mission is to help disadvantaged youth and their families in the community realize their potential through the motto Dream. Do. Achieve. Students in elementary and middle schools are a part of the Pioneer Scholars program and have a focus on academic and self-confidence fundamentals. Once in high school, students continue their progress in the Scholars to College portion of the Emily K Center curriculum. Harnessing leadership skills and making students realize that they do have the power to make their dreams come true are the main goals of the counselors and tutors at the center. Coach K has credited the community center in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois as being a place that helped him feel welcome in a part of town that was not always friendly to the Polish-American community, and he hopes that the Emily K Family LIFE Center will continue to provide the same feeling for the hundreds of youth it serves every day.


There are many other reasons I admire Mike Krzyzewski as a person, not just as a leader, that could constitute another post all together. The manner in which he treats his family, past players, and colleagues in both the sport and business worlds is one of respect, honesty, and humility. He is not only the leader of a basketball team, but of a large family as well, whom he includes in all aspects of his life whether they are basketball-related or otherwise. As I stated earlier, I am planning to have a career in athletics, and there are few leaders besides Coach Krzyzewski who are worthy of being admired for their leadership style. As I continue to grow as a person and as a leader, I will carry with me all of the wisdom he has shared with the world through his books and television interviews.


“During the season, your team should be led with exuberance and excitement. You should live the journey. You should live it right. You should live it together. You should live it shared. You should try to make one another better. You should get on one another if somebody’s not doing their part. You should hug one another when they are. You should be disappointed in a loss and exhilarated in a win. It’s all about the journey.”


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